There are a number of virtues we consider the hallmarks of “the hero”L honesty, justice, bravery and so forth. We instill these values in younger people, as parents and teachers; we inscribe them in institutions and within ethics. Indeed, there is an entire rich moral system, commonly known as Virtue Ethics, which encourages striving toward these kinds of virtues.
Yet how far will adhering absolutely to a moral base get you, even when it’s supposedly “good guy/girl” traits? Poison, after all, is not merely toxic elements in themselves, but good ones ingested in too great quantities: We can die drinking arsenic, but also too much water.
Don’t let the cape and tights fool you. Having heroic qualities doesn’t always mean this is someone you should aspire to be.
Always tell the truth. Lying is bad. This is what’s commonly assumed.
Lying isn’t the same as a mistake: You have to know the truth but distort it. The philosopher Sissela Bok says we hate lying because of how it flirts with notions of insanity: playing with distortions of reality and truth. Truth seems pure and clean, the hallmark of a heroic trait. You’re conveying how the world really is, not holding back. If you have to lie, you probably have something to be ashamed of — and heroes have nothing to be ashamed of, after all.
But none of us are perfectly pure beings. Even Batman, after all, has to deceive loved ones about his identity. A world of absolute honesty is not one we live in nor should want. While there are ways in which we’re right to be outraged over government spying and invasions of privacy, family members and friends might not be able to handle our honest opinions on matters. This doesn’t mean being silent, only smart. Deception is a tool that should be recognised as not inherently bad, though it is often used to achieve bad ends. But this goes for honesty too. A world in which you must be honest to a knife-wielding madman seeking your friend is probably not a world you want.
Love For All Humankind
Consider the variations of film, novels, games. Imagine someone told you: “I love all film/novels/etc.” Presumably, you would not take such a person seriously: It’s not possible he’s experienced all of it, nor that each example is of equal worth. But this is precisely the absurd message of those so willing to love all of humanity. It’s thought that hatred is a bad word: We should not hate, “only” love.
Love is an abused notion that should be used as a precious resource for those people and phenomena worthy of it. To overturn the entire containment of love on to our whole species — like a whole creative medium — is absurd. An easy counter is to point out simply horrible people from our history and current times. These people deserve hate, not love.
Hatred is an important tool. Like love, used too far and too wide makes it useless. Channelling hatred in the right direction can achieve noble ends, just as love. As infamous hater of all things sacred, Christopher Hitchens, once said:
“I think that hatred, though it provides often rather junky energy, is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning and keeping you going.”
Humans come in a variety of forms, demanding different responses from us. Unfettered love can be as bad as unfettered hate. We should recognise then that hate can be a tool useful to us all, when grounded correctly.
Never give up! There is apparently strength in utter determination, in believing in goals despite what the world throws at you with its poison claws of reality. We’re told to “Have hope!” by many people, including President Barack Obama. As he said in his 2012 Victory Speech:
“I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us…”
Well, no. Have evidence. Have reasons. To hope is to deceive oneself that things will work out — despite hardships — thus being one of the instances in which deception is bad. What use is hope when you have justified reasons you can achieve your ends? What does hope attain, except to convey wishes — and, then, why do you need to tell someone to “wish” for what they already want?
Good people don’t provide hope. They provide evidence that things can be better. Don’t give people hope. Give them reasons to trust you, to believe you. Any hero character that demands her followers “have hope” really is, to be charitable, probably telling them to not give up. But sometimes giving up is the right course of action.
The world doesn’t arc toward helping us; reality isn’t bent to make our paths easier. Of course, it’s not the opposite either. Instead, reality is far worse: It’s indifferent. We are the ones that have to do things, react to things, change things. Calling for hope does nothing to achieve these ends, except to encourage not facing reality. And if you really mean that people should try harder, not give up, or be strong then, clearly, we have better words. Hope is, even on this charitable reading, an unhelpful and poisonous trait.
Thus, traditionally villainous properties and virtues — deception, hatred, and giving up on hope — can be useful and needed, in a world where things don’t work out as often as we’d like.
Tauriq Moosa is a word user, penning opinion pieces seen in The Guardian, New Statesmen, io9, and elsewhere. He blogs at Big Think on ethics, tech and pop culture. He is available for children’s parties — preferably orphans who won’t be missed.
This post is part of our Evil Week series at Lifehacker, where we look at the dark side of getting things done. Knowing evil means knowing how to beat it, so you can use your sinister powers for good. Want more? Check out our evil week tag page.